Nowadays, it feels like if you didn’t grow up with Dragon Ball, then delving into its endless selection of characters, locations, arcs, proper nouns, and goodness knows what else is all but impossible. I dabbled in the Toonami release of Dragon Ball Z as a kid and saw a handful of films in recent years (including the excellent Super: Broly) but to claim I’m expert on the daunting well of lore would be a complete and utter lie. I know my Gokus from my Vegetas from my Piccolos, but the moment you start talking about the science behind Power Levels I’m just going to switch off and distract myself with all the over-the-top explosions.
The obnoxiously named Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero understands that perspective, or at least positions itself as a feature film that veterans and newcomers can find immense value in. Small yet essential elements of the series’ backstory are explained before we’re thrown into the deep end, with Super Hero intended to be both a nostalgic callback and stylish modernisation of Dragon Ball’s Red Ribbon Army Saga and Dragon Ball Z’s Android Saga. Nostalgia is capitalised upon while previously rejected heroes are brought back into the spotlight for a well-deserved epic showdown. Piccolo stans rise up.
Certain viewers might take issue with the polarising animation style that sees the entire film computer animated for the first time in series’ history, while others could turn their noses up at the cliched execution of melodramatic anime exposition and needing to have a reasonable bedrock of knowledge to not find themselves lost amidst the chaos. But even for a lapsed fan like me who has only engaged with Dragon Ball on the periphery, Super Hero remains an explosive, emotional, and downright ambitious experience to behold.
I’d normally roll my eyes at an esteemed series like this for digging up the past, but Dragon Ball has evolved so much that it makes perfect sense to explore existing arcs from a new perspective, even more so when some fans weren’t even alive when certain storylines were first conceived. If you don’t fancy forking out for expensive Blu-rays or unearthing older episodes from the vault, Super Hero follows in the footsteps of Broly and seeks to depict its myriad heroes and villains in a modern light. The Dragon Ball Super storyline fans have been following from the anime and manga is also pushed forward, but with far more flair and circumstance than your typical television adaptation could ever hope to be capable of.
It all kicks off with Goku and Vegeta training under the guidance of Whis, with recently reformed villain Broly tagging along to help keep his rage under control. Everything seems dandy, but with this being Dragon Ball, it’s only a matter of time until another villain rocks up and tries to destroy the entire universe. You’ll be shocked to learn that this does indeed happen. Revisiting these characters for a brief moment of slice-of-life respite feels like a reward after the events of Super Broly, uniting us with a few familiar faces who aren’t really the film’s main focus – that honour goes to Piccolo and Gohan as they find themselves the unfortunate targets of revenge by a reformed version of the Red Ribbon Army.
The devious cabal are hatching a villainous new plan on Earth with the help of Magenta, Carmine, and Dr. Hedo. All of them put their collective talents together to create Gamma 1 and Gamma 2 – two new androids with the purpose of taking revenge on our heroes and pitching themselves as illustrious heroes in the public eye. Given the arcs that Super Hero is liberally seeking to recreate, you won’t be surprised to learn that a new vision of Cell is also waiting in the wings. In the opening act we see all the ingredients for an epic showdown fall in line, even if some elements prove predictable for those who have seen basically anything unfold in the Dragon Ball universe before. The heroes are going to win, but what really matters is the world building and character development seen along the way.
I’m a sentimental bitch, so the big draw for me throughout Super Hero was the familial bond between Piccolo and Gohan. Once a villain, to see Piccolo work alongside his surrogate son against a seemingly impossible threat results in some spectacular moments of melodramatic excess. It’s a homage that honours everything that came before while carving forward a new path, one that isn’t afraid to explore the unfair expectations cast upon Gohan in the shadow of someone as legendary as Goku. He is powerful and capable of so much, but it takes a character like Piccolo to help pick apart his more sensitive flaws to emerge victorious.
Gohan was initially cast aside as his father became the series’ focus again, with fans wanting to see their favourite character beat down villains again and again and again even if it meant eventual stagnation. In a somewhat meta approach, Gohan’s absence from the world stage is woven into Super Hero’s narrative. You’d expect a callback like this to be drenched in obnoxious fan service – and at times it is – but by recognising the property’s own past missteps the film is so much stronger as a consequence.
I walked into this expecting to be lost amidst an avalanche of lore, but Super Hero manages to deliver an unexpected mixture of personal stakes, weighty drama, and a character story that builds upon decades of fiction to reach its culmination. Stakes can feel minimal and the new villains can feel like flavours of the week when all is said and done, but the end result leaves the universe feeling richer and more consequential. Piccolo and Gohan have always been fan favourites, and to see them given more attention while the wider cast still has so much to do with their own respective stories is incredible to see.
Enough story spoilers, it’s time to talk animation. Super Hero is depicted entirely in 3D, a direction that was always going to prove divisive. It’s taking inspiration from games like Kakarot and FighterZ, with fight sequences possessing so much more weight as we see characters hurl one another across entire planets before crashing directly into gorgeously rendered environments. The hand-crafted flourish of traditional animation is definitely missed, but the film is able to do so much more with scale and perspective by leaving it behind. Colours remain bright, action is obscenely detailed, and set pieces hit home like never before even if Super Hero never quite reaches the series’ highest heights.
Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero is an explosive, emotional, and surprisingly ambitious feature. It doesn’t evolve the series or break new ground, but a willingness to explore character dynamics and potential narrative ideas that have long stood rejected allows archaic arcs to feel fresh all over again. Piccolo and Gohan’s bond is surrounded by all manner of heroes and villains amidst a plot you can’t help but get wrapped up in.
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